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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Why bar parents from helping on homework?

By Jay Mathews

Westfield High School Principal Tim Thomas has wisely ruled against further use of the infamous “Expectations of Integrity” homework guidelines that caused such an uproar at his very large and competitive Fairfax County high school.

The guidelines were handed out by three Advanced Placement World History teachers. They said: “You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or ‘The Earth and Its Peoples’ textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.” Students were barred from using anything they found on the Internet or even discussing their assignments with friends, classmates or parents.

Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier told me, in a terse e-mail, that what I consider a clumsy attempt to discourage cheating and encourage independent thought was no more. Regnier said the teachers and Thomas declined to talk to me about the guidelines and his decision to spike them.

I am sure the AP teachers meant well, but it seemed to me, and many readers, that out of fear of cheating, they had outlawed curiosity. Many of us know the delight of exploring a library, or the Internet, for the answer to some obscure question. “Expectations of Integrity” made that a no-no.

I congratulate Thomas for his good sense in reversing these anti-scholarly rules. I wish he would explain his thinking, particularly about the teachers’ odd view of what best stimulates critical thinking and their assumption that parental involvement in assignments should be discouraged.

In principle, I agree with readers who said the teachers were right to encourage students to think independently and identify questions the textbook had failed to answer. Standard analysis, for instance, suggests 15th-century Chinese exploration of the Indian Ocean ended because of imperial court intrigues and a Chinese cultural distaste for the outside word. A thoughtful student might ask how that would outweigh the mercantile spirit that spread Chinese traders throughout Southeast Asia.

The problem is, a textbook might not mention that Chinese diaspora. The Westfield students were sophomores. Did they know enough to think critically about what the textbook was telling them? Some apparently didn’t even know how much textbooks typically leave out. Commenting on my blog, one student in the course said his teacher “didn’t want us to use anything but the book BECAUSE all the information was in the book.”

Any student who believes that assertion should be encouraged, indeed required, to seek other sources of information. Among the best people to talk to in many cases are their parents.

Burt Mazia of Rockville recalled his shock at how his daughter’s AP history textbook “boiled down events into a few sentences.” It was enjoyable and instructive for parent and child to hash out these issues at home. “I could see her become a thinker,” he said.

Carl “Cj” Horn, an Army officer with a doctorate in history, said he and his wife Kim (who has an MBA) do not see their homework discussions with their children as an unfair advantage but as “value-added for the teacher.” “We encourage them to ask questions and then help them find sources for the answers,” he said.

The high test scores and college-enrollment rates that area public schools brag of are strongly influenced by the fact that this area has a larger portion of college graduates than any other U.S. region. That’s a good thing. Why wouldn’t the teachers at Westfield want to pass on the intellectual benefits of that to their students?

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 1, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Expectations of Integrity,, Fairfax County, Paul Regnier, Westfield High School, homework guidelines criticized, parents helpful with homework, principal Tim Thomas  
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Comments

Did they know enough to think critically about what the textbook was telling them? Some apparently didn’t even know how much textbooks typically leave out. Commenting on my blog, one student in the course said his teacher “didn’t want us to use anything but the book BECAUSE all the information was in the book.”

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An AP history course (indeed most history courses until you get to grad school) are survey courses. There is a large body of information one needs to know in order to successfully master the objectives of the course; but this body of information is specifically delineated so that teachers and students know there is not an infinite body of knowledge at infinite levels of analysis that will be assessed. When the student said, "all the information is in the book," what he/she meant was all the information the student needed to master those objectives could be found in the book, not all the information on everything that ever happened since the beginning of time. Students do understand this, particularly students in an AP history class. Indeed many students do go beyond what was discussed in class to find out more information about the subject; but that extra information is usually at a level of analysis that is much too specific, and as a result generally isn't relevant to the objectives of the course or causes confusion by throwing out a few examples that are so specific the students fail to notice the overall picture (the old "you can't see the forest for the trees" kinda thing). I find this all the time from boys (and it is virtually always boys) with regard to the American Revolution, Civil War, and WWII (but especially WWII). They have so much outside knowledge that you want to give them credit for knowing and you want to include; but when you have a US History course where you have to cover 500 years or a world history course where you have to cover 10,000 years you simply can't spend two days talking about the story of John Basilone.

As teachers we don't want to stifle curious students. We want to encourage that curiosity if the student so desires. But in a course that is as heavily content driven as most history courses are at this level we can't engage in an extended exploration of all theories and all questions and still be expected to finish the syllabus. Something has to give. Now if we changed the model of how we teach high school history in this country from a content-driven format to a skill-driven format we might be able to change that. The problem is there is no political will to alter the structure that we have and so we are stuck where we are.

Posted by: Rob63 | December 2, 2010 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Rob63 hit the nail on the head in his careful and accurate description of the problem facing any AP teacher:

"this body of information is specifically delineated so that teachers and students know there is not an infinite body of knowledge at infinite levels of analysis that will be assessed."

Rob, do you ever find that there is a conflict between using the course as a competitive exam score race, and using it to teach gifted, inquiring students most effectively? College history isn't taught for the purpose of producing high-test-scorers. Should we warp the teaching itself to facilitate "assessment"? If we do, exactly what are we assessing?

The chemistry test makers tried to avoid the dilemma by designing Acorn core topic list, and then approving syllabi that selected topics within it. Acorn included more topics than can be covered, with the idea that students would miss the questions on some topics, but score well because of the depth of coverage on others. That worked for me and my students. They didn't score as high as they might have on an assessment-driven course plan, but their success in college chemistry (and later neuroscience and aviation engineering) has been remarkable.

In one of those heated exchanges teachers can have over access to AP courses, one physics teacher (a good friend) at my school argued, "but the test is the whole reason for the course." She sees he world that way, and is now an assistant principal, in fact.

Intellectual parents see the world differently, whether they're rich or poor, and they like to pass on their habits of mind to their kids. Such was my own mother's gift to me, and mine to her grandsons. I would never outlaw it.

What education research is showing us is that parent input is an almost necessary element in successful education for privileged kids, and its damned hard to get most kids to the "top" level of development without it.

Posted by: mport84 | December 2, 2010 6:04 AM | Report abuse

I feel your title is misleading "why bar parents from helping with homework" brought to my mind those projects from elementary school that were on display for all to see, and everyone in the crowd knew which project was actually a parent project.

Dinner table conversations, such as the ones you have described, are not "helping with homework" but more showing interest in the students' courses/topics. That is perhaps stimulating further inquiry, but none of the parents suggested answers, or stated what the answer had to be, which would shut down inquiry.

Oh, some of those elementary project parents do go on to assist with writing papers in high school, and I do fear for those students, especially in terms of setting up their own study times/habits, but primarily in their writing, inquiry and stamina/interest in their college courses.

Glad to know Westfield changed their policy

Posted by: researcher2 | December 2, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse

Rob, do you ever find that there is a conflict between using the course as a competitive exam score race, and using it to teach gifted, inquiring students most effectively? College history isn't taught for the purpose of producing high-test-scorers. Should we warp the teaching itself to facilitate "assessment"? If we do, exactly what are we assessing?
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Part of the problem is that, at least in the AP history courses, the College Board is attempting to assess what they claim are skills used by historians. But in the standard undergraduate history program, these skills would be taught in specialized seminars (with 8-15 declared history majors) covering a fairly narrow topic, not in a general ed survey course, which is essentially what AP history courses are. The reason being you can either cover lots of content or truly develop these historical thinking skills, but it's extremely hard to do both simultaneously (especially when you have 100+ students) and that is what AP asks of us.

If we were able to offer these specialized seminars it would probably fit better with what that theoretical "gifted, inquiring student" wants - a limited content area with the ability to investigate in narrower levels of analysis. Unfortunately the way public high schools are set up, for both financial and logistical reasons it's extremely difficult to schedule a 15 person skills seminar on a narrow topic like the Civil War and Reconstruction (especially as a semester course).

As for the question of what we are assessing, the answer is mastery of the standards. Whether you agree with the particular standards you have been told to teach is a whole other issue. A good teacher doesn't teach to an assessment per se, but rather teaches to the standards that will be covered by that assessment. If you teach to a set of standards that are not being assessed and you assess based on standards you haven't taught, that in my mind is a serious problem.

Posted by: Rob63 | December 2, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

First of all, the Expecations of Integrity were not intended to stifle student creativity or even prevent students from speaking to their students about the assignments. It was meant to give the students a clear understanding of what was considered "cheating" and what was not. As teachers, we are told to state clear expecations and objectives in everything we do. Why not state clear expectations on what "cheating" is? Only the naive person would think that some parents don't complete assignmetns for their students. It happens. A lot. The assignments given in the class were assignments necessary to take a quiz on the understanding of a textbook chapter. The questions were based on information given in the textbook. Students are able to use any notes they take from the textbook on these quizzes. The problem is that outlines for these textbooks are available online for anyone to download or cut and paste. In essence the student doesn't have to read a single word from the textbook and be able to benefit from the "open note" nature of the quiz. Anti-plagiarism services like turnitin.com can be fooled through manipulation of the wording of the plagiarized document (and once one kid gets away with it, it is only a matter of time before most of the other students find out about this shortcut). Also, isn't learning to effectively read, outline, and summarize from a textbook (or any other book) a skill which would be valuable in college and beyond? Taking shortcuts like cutting and pasting (or allowing your parent to do the outline for you) is actually shortchanging the student who is taking an AP level class. Perhaps the wording of the Expectations of Integrity did not fully explain that it was the prevention of parents doing the work for their students which was being prohibited and NOT the prevention of parent/child discussions of the assignment or class itself. It did however, ask parents to discuss the topic of cheating and academic integrity. Perhaps if more of these discussions were held AND consequences for cheating and/or academic dishonesty were meted out at home, then documents like the Expecations of Integrity were not necessary. If parents who want to be involved really want to help their students, they should be reinforcing the skills necessary to do well in class, not attacking the teachers for a simple attempt to get their students to avoid taking the easy way out.

Posted by: APforyou | December 2, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

For Rob63---thanks for the very deep and useful comment. We AP wonks love that stuff and are happy to see such a pro teaching that class.

For APforyou---You make an excellent argument, and to a point I agree. But I now have some information that Expectations of Integrity was originally written as a ONE TIME guideline for one take home exam, for which it would be quite appropriate. Giving it a broader use I think was a problem, since it was so easy for both kids and parents to misinterpret. Also, I still think there is a tendency for teachers, under the pressure of wanting to enforce honesty, to act more like referees than educators. All those rules to level the playing field can get in the way of learning. Check out next Monday's column for another example.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 2, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

AP courses are taught to help students pass the AP test. Thus, they have to remain focused on the standards being tested.
Any time spent on creative learning is a waste of time, since students and teachers won't be using that information on tests.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | December 2, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't think that asking students to complete their assignments with the materials supplied to everyone stifles anyone.

I view it as encouraging students to study and read critically and then formulate their opinions based on the facts at hand. Then you know that the students have read critically and extracted what they should from the material. There are always MORE FACTs available. Is the goal of the class to see who has the most informed parents and the fastest Internet search, or to teach students to think critically from what is in front of them?

If they want to take a class with a research paper where extensive interviews and opinion gathering is the goal then let them do that seperately.

Posted by: DogNabit | December 2, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

For those thinking the parents performed the work in most cases you can tell. The bottom line is if the student was involved and engaged, odds are they learned.

I take exception to the individualistic approach for teaching and testing. Few of us ever solve anything in life alone. It makes little sense to put kids in a vacuum, pose the threat like this, and expect anything good to evolve.

I'm an adult educator/trainer. I always want my entire class involved. They are as likely to learn more from one another as from "the dude in front of the class." I want to see them engaged, I want to see them learn AND teach others. That is what I see as learning.

Posted by: educ8er | December 2, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Jay - what bothers me most with this is the FCPS stonewall you ran into. I can understand the school Administrators not wanting to speak to you directly, but for the FCPS spokesman, Paul Regnier, to do likewise boggles the mind.

You used the phrase "in a terse e-mail" to describe Regnier's response to you. That's simply unacceptable, especially given the debt of gratitude that the FCPS owes you personally.

When someone of your stature asks for a comment on a policy - particularly with regard to advanced classes such as AP or IB - you should get it, and it should be cogent and complete. If errors are made, they should be admitted. If not, the actions should be defended. For you to essentially be told to pound sand is outrageous - regardless of the subject matter. The FCPs would not be the system it is today without your push for more opportunities for its students.

They should be ashamed.

Posted by: LoveIB | December 2, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Trying to prevent parental involvement in a student's education is nothing new in Montgomery County. Part of what is going on here is the mentality that any augmentation or help not available to everyone is unfair. Other manifestations of this point of view have included efforts to curtail parent volunteers in the schools and donations of equipment or supplies on the grounds that not all schools will recieve such support. We moved our children from a public to a private school where the emphsis was on educational accomplishment rather than equality of inputs.

Posted by: edport | December 2, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

LoveIB is right on target: For FCPS spokesperson Paul Regnier to refuse comment is indeed flabbergasting. I recall that his initial comment regarding this issue was that the honor code policy was "meant tongue in cheek." Talk about unprofessional and embarrassing.

Posted by: harmony24 | December 2, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

ubblybubbly wrote: AP courses are taught to help students pass the AP test. Thus, they have to remain focused on the standards being tested.
Any time spent on creative learning is a waste of time, since students and teachers won't be using that information on tests.
--------------------------------------------------

I can't disagree more.
Creative assignments have to be focused on the content, skills, and themes that will be tested. But your comment, if followed, would lead to less learning imo due to less engagement.

Check out World History Connected lessons for how this IS being done:
http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.1/webster.htmlhttp://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.3/gregg.html
http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/6.3/diskant.html

I would argue that without making lessons engaging (not necessarily fun, but interesting) you lose kids for part or all of the lesson or they're not fully there so they will not do as well on assessments.

Posted by: worldhistoryteacher | December 3, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

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